I want to teach justice-involved people how to navigate the system of higher education, not to survive, but to thrive.

by Danny Murillo, #LwC2019

October 15, 2019

I grew up in Norwalk in Southeast L.A. during the crack era.  My first arrest happened when I was eight years old, and I was pushed out of school on the first day of 10th grade after being suspended for a fight I was not involved in.  When I was fifteen I was tried as an adult, convicted of several felonies, and sentenced to fifteen years.  When I started my prison sentence at High Desert State Prison it was hyper-violent space.  Then I ended up in two of the three supermax prisons, the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Tehachapi and Pelican Bay. I was in Tehachapi for one year and five years at Pelican Bay for a total of six in solitary confinement.   It was at Pelican Bay where I took my education to the next level. At first I was being educated by the men around me and then they convinced me to pursue my GED. I always had trouble with math, and there was a guy in the same cell pod as me who was good at it and I asked him to be my math tutor.  Every day after dinner, Monday through Friday for nine months for about an hour we’d be yelling algebraic equations to each other and he took me step by step. Then I was convinced to participate in the college correspondence program through Coastline Community College.

When I got out of prison, I enrolled in community college, and after getting my Associates Degree I decided to keep going.  I applied to U.C. Berkeley and got in.  On my first day at U.C. Berkeley, I met another formerly incarcerated student and he shared with me that he was also incarcerated at the SHU at Pelican Bay. After a couple of conversations with him, we decided to start an organization called Underground Scholars Initiative, now called Berkeley Underground Scholars (BUS).  Pretty soon scores of formerly incarcerated students were coming to our meetings, and eventually, BUS became an official university program with funding and a full-time staff.  Today, BUS recruits formerly incarcerated students through an “ambassador program” at fifteen community colleges throughout the state.  It provides tutoring and other kinds of support to those who come to Berkeley.  It also advocates for policies that expand opportunities for students with criminal records.  It’s a great model.

Today I am the Research and Program Analyst at The Opportunity Institute, a non-profit organization focused on educational equity and creating access to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated people.  I am part of the Renewing Communities team and we see this project as a systems change initiative.  Ultimately we want to create public institutional ownership and have colleges and universities in California  take the lead in expanding access to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated students. My priority is to build a network of formerly incarcerated students and alumni who will advocate for student clubs and programs not only on UC campuses but also in the Cal State University and community college system.

One of my goals is to develop a workshop that I can take inside to provide academic counseling to folks who want to continue their education when they are released.  A lot of times folks get discouraged walking into these academic institutions, so I want to give them a roadmap on how to do that.  I want to teach justice-involved people how to navigate the system of higher education, not to survive, but to thrive.  I recently ran a workshop at Pelican Bay, and when people found out I spent six in solitary confinement prison their eyes lit up.  “You were here, in Pelican Bay?   And you graduated from UC Berkeley?  And you have a professional job?”  The incarcerated students were very attentive and asked great questions.

Leading with Conviction is helping me to strengthen my communication and advocacy skills.  A lot of times when people come into this work they don’t get trained properly.   I’m learning to focus on the message and to use my personal story as a tool for justice.

Danny Murillo received the Rockwood Leadership Institute’s 2017 Returning Citizens Fellowship and is a 2016 Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow and a 2015 John W. Gardner Fellow for Public Service.  In 2014 he was awarded a Peter E. Haas Public Service Leadership Scholarship, and the Ronald E. McNair Scholarship. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015, with a degree in Ethnic Studies.